Ideas for trade union growth in South Africa

Nelly Nyagah

Ideas for trade union growth in South Africa

In 2019, Labour Research Service (LRS) worked with 29 remarkable worker leaders to craft a model Inclusive Collective Bargaining Agreement (ICBA) for our new manual for trade union negotiators in South Africa. Supported by the National Skills Fund (NSF), this work is part of a broader LRS project for promoting informed social dialogue by addressing information and skills asymmetries in collective bargaining in South Africa. The participants involved in our peer learning process acknowledged that trade union organising and bargaining processes are changing, and provided rich input that’ll assist organisations to have more inclusive collective bargaining agendas. 

We took the opportunity to get the views of participants about the key issues in their organisations. With decades of experience as a worker leader, Shiyinduku Twala (highlighted in the picture), a national negotiator at SADTU, has ideas for trade union development in South Africa.

Do worker leaders have a good grasp of South Africa's labour laws?

We have retrogressed in our understanding of labour laws and our rights as workers because of the nature of unionism in South Africa, particularly after 1994. When the ANC government took power 25 years ago, we relaxed and trusted the new leadership would push the agenda of workers in South Africa. The resources that trade unions committed to ensuring that our shop stewards got rigorous training were gradually diverted to other activities, and now many worker leaders are grappling. Shop stewards were left behind when the amendments to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) and Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) happened. At the same time, the language used in the labour laws became tightened and it became difficult for us to understand. The various existing judgements helped, but not all shop stewards can easily access them because our organisations have become lax about capacity building. We are ignorant and the bosses are taking advantage of the situation.

So we need to go back to the basics...what kind of support did you receive as a new worker leader?

I joined the trade union movement in 1987. Educators and shop stewards were constantly given the skills to represent workers well. The training built confidence in me. Later I joined SADTU and found a similar learning culture, but the focus gradually subsided. Luckily I had a strong foundation and I continued to read, ask questions, consult my colleagues and do research. But I can’t claim to know everything. Some issues still elude me because they are new – a result of changing processes and context. Take the example of a case I argued not so long ago at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). I wasn’t aware that the judgement I was using had been voided by another. The Commissioner pointed it out and said the CCMA didn’t have jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

Shop stewards need to keep learning, interacting and applying the different perspectives accordingly. Young worker leaders need to learn from those who’ve walked this path. Listen, be patient and inquisitive. The most important thing is to read and do research. Go through all the libraries of information that you can access and get the information that can give you the confidence to represent workers well. Equally important is understanding the culture and traditions of your organisation from the onset. Know the vision and mission of your organisation and the short- and long-term objectives.

More than ever before the leadership and membership need to be united to ensure the growth and sustainability of worker organisations...

This is true, and if we can’t adapt we’ll die. Worker leaders cannot be part of any divisive processes in our organisations. In the current environment, there are many divergent views. We are preaching tolerance and inclusiveness to accommodate all views. In the LRS peer learning workshops, we spoke about why it is important to consider the needs of workers who’ve been traditionally excluded from collective bargaining agendas. We have identified the key priority issues in the 12 sectors represented and looked at how we can best use the existing laws, legislations and conventions to close the gaps. Thus, we cannot entertain the idea of ‘camps’ in our organisations. Our key responsibility is to ensure that all workers – in both formal and informal sectors – have decent work and are not left behind as the fourth industrial revolution takes off.

I think the growth that trade unions in South Africa are desperately seeking can happen if we sacrifice our ambitions for the sake of the movement. One of the keys to be a successful unionist is to stay safe and to support leadership chosen by the majority. But don’t be afraid to raise your views and please remember not everyone will agree with you.

Can you see any changes in the structure and governance of trade unions?

The majority of trade unions in South Africa have an army-like structure focused on deployment and protocol. Think of sites, locals, branches, regions and provinces… It’s no brainer that the efficient flow of information has been compromised let alone ‘the essence’ of information in the traditionally ‘trickle-down’ fashion of operations. In the current epoch, workers have better and faster access to information via, for instance, social media. And some unions, particularly the bigger unions, have been left behind by smaller unions who now rule the space of information dissemination and governance. Hence you see the crumbling of some big unions. I don’t think big unions will survive longer if they continue using old methods in new contexts. The organisational design of our trade unions isn’t congruent with the current situation. We have to adopt new ideas and be innovative. The concept of deployment in trade unions must change. The traditional trade union organogram must change. Unions need to embrace the young worker who’s so vibrant and militant. I think to a degree the change is already happening.

  • Organising young workers in South Africa: How are trade unions faring
  • Supporting collective bargaining for workers in precarious employment | LRS/NSF Peer Learning workshop 2

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